As Sam Pritchard’s production opens, the audience are in relative darkness – that strange, seeping half-light specific to theatre auditoriums. Throughout this taut, tense hour, however, the quality of the light gradually changes, slyly creeping over spectators until finally its brightness is overwhelming. Whether this light is the blinding flash of despair or a closing symbol of hope is – like the unanswered questions the piece poses – up to us to decide.
Chris Thorpe’s play is made up of choices – some instant, some pre-meditated, some gradual. A man walks into a room full of teenagers armed with a gun. A woman embarks on a journey to her new home that doesn’t go to plan. A group of revolutionaries begin, bit by bit, to resemble the dictators they deposed. And one man, a bag of shopping in each hand, stops a tank in its tracks.
These stories of brutality, cowardice, compromise and heroism all elegantly interlock, forming a multi-stranded examination of morality and pragmatism in a chaotic world. The narratives are distinct, but they are all connected by the idea of a decision to be taken, a response to circumstances and the repercussions of that response. Three are told as monologues: a young woman whose plane makes a disastrous landing, a man looking on at one protestor’s iconic act of heroism in Tienanmen Square, and a one time revolutionary leader justifying the actions that have been taken to protect the new state. This is interspersed with a chilling interrogation, with hints of the Anders Breivik massacre, in which a murderer calmly explains his political motivations for shooting a group of children. Underneath it all, there is an implicit, nagging question: what would you do in each of these situations?
Despite the often bleak and brutal subject matter, Thorpe’s writing is startlingly beautiful. It offers up sentences that you want to capture and cradle, alongside statements that ricochet around the piece like bullets. These exquisite yet explosive words are offered little decoration by Pritchard’s production, which turns its attention to speech and to voices. Thorpe’s intricate, poetic text is delivered by Nigel Barrett, Gemma Brockis and Yusra Warsama, seated behind microphones with scripts in hand, apart from when standing for the interrogation sequences. The tone of these three voices initially seems dispassionately detached, but as the piece goes on it becomes possible to notice the subtlest of intonations, the slightest shifts in emphasis. The style of delivery invites an audience to observe the minutiae of performance, while the presence of scripts reminds us that this is indeed a performance. These are not individuals so much as isolated voices, representing a range of responses and positions that any of us might adopt. Like the tank man in Tienanmen Square, who means so much more as an anonymous symbol than as a man with a name and a personal history, Thorpe’s nameless characters are all the more powerful because they are not laden with all the specific detail of naturalistic representation.
Signe Beckmann’s minimal yet oddly brilliant design performs a similar function. Its workings are largely exposed, with mic cords snaking across the stage and being plugged in by the performers as the audience take their seats, once again reinforcing the idea that we are watching a piece of theatre rather than being plunged into an illusion. Other than the chairs and microphones, the set simply consists of a blandly corporate carpet and wall of blinds. We might be in any impersonal office space or lobby in one of countless similar buildings all over the world – each anxiously shouting “neutral” with its inoffensive decor, when really it is anything but. Upon this non-specific but suggestive canvas, Thorpe’s words paint vivid images of the scenes in question, from the carnage of a plane crash to the roar of the crowd.
If the play’s attitudes on the whole are complicated and often ambivalent – chaos is a spur to catastrophe, for example, while control hardly yields better outcomes – then the crowd is perhaps the most striking example of this knotty uncertainty. In some instances it cries out as one, a raging beast that quashes dissensus, while in others it spits out an individual to speak or act on its behalf. It is both powerful and dangerous. But in the final, jointly spoken segment, as a tapestry of voices unite and light floods the auditorium, hope still seems to lie in collective – if flawed – acts of shared humanity.